I’ve noticed that there seems to be a different set of rules that apply to women who happen to be visibly pregnant. People feel free to comment and touch things that they would never do otherwise. Is it because a visibly pregnant woman is so noticeably fecund that many of these basic rules of etiquette disappear? Or is there a level of discomfort with visibly pregnant women that people feel the need to make the pregnant woman feel socially uncomfortably too?
We live in a culture that feels welcome and even entitled to comment on appearances, especially female appearances. Our daughter has just turned 4 years old and I have already heard people and men in particular comment on her body proportions and composition. Appropriate or not, our culture invites particular scrutiny and evaluation of the female body on a regular basis. In a community of believers, despite our talk of being one body in Christ and loving our neighbors as fellow people made in the image of God, we still struggle to battle these American cultural values of constantly evaluating appearance, especially in women and girls.
One of the biggest problems with making comments to pregnant women about their pregnant bodies is that most of us have made ‘that mistake.’ You know, the time you said something because you were sure someone was expecting. But they weren’t. Or had a baby recently. Or not recently at all. Humiliating for both parties. Most of us have done this only once and learned our lesson. Better not to say anything at all unless one is absolutely certain.
But when someone is certain, what is the appropriate response? I cannot pretend to speak for all women or all pregnant women, but my general take is to maintain the same bonds of common courtesy that exist for people who are not pregnant. If you would not ordinary rub my abs, it probably isn’t appropriate to rub my abs (or divided abs) while I’m pregnant, unless I have specifically invited you to feel the baby move. As a college professor, I’ve noticed that many students on campus struggle with the correct response to a visibly pregnant woman. Most stare at my midsection, then look down or away. Are they ashamed? Embarrassed? Some of their eyes widen with surprise, and then they look away. Most give me a very wide berth in the hallways. Am I contagious? A few students that I knew well looked me in the eye and said, “Congratulations on your baby!” which to me, was a lovely and kind response. It acknowledged the happy change in our family and celebrated that change without an extensive commentary on me or my changing appearance. Refreshing.
For pregnant women, most of these unsolicited comments and occasional touching typically transpire only when women are visibly pregnant. Most people know it takes roughly 9 months or 40 weeks from conception to birth. Most people should also realize that many women are pregnant for quite some time before any but the most well-trained eye notice. But it isn’t until people are sure that the comments and touching occur, which is usually the last few months of pregnancy when most pregnant women are less interested to hear a commentary on their appearance. For example, a man that I had just met asked when I was due. When I responded that I was due in January, he responded, “Really? All I can say is WOW.” What is the appropriate neighborly response to that sort of comment? The same, probably well-meaning gentlemen (I hope?) then proceeded to ask me about the appropriate amount of weight gain during a pregnancy. Good grief. Another man asked me if I was having twins. I kindly but firmly replied, “No,” to which he responded, “are you SURE?” Indeed. I am absolutely sure. There are also many, I assume, well-meaning individuals who volunteer all kinds of specific and rather personal information about their own pregnancies or pregnancies of a family member or acquaintance. Some ask very personal questions related to my weight, how I carry the baby (high, apparently), and, of course, how I look overall. Not all comments are negative, of course. While walking through the airport yesterday, one woman looked me up and down and remarked, “adorable!”
Maybe the best way to be a good neighbor, especially to someone you don’t know well, is to remember to say something nice or nothing at all.